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Innocents Abroad presents itself as an ordinary travel book. It is based on an actual event, in a retired Civil War ship (the USS Quaker City). The excursion upon which the book is based was billed as a Holy Land expedition, with numerous stops along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a train excursion from Marseilles, France to Paris for the 1867 Paris Exhibition, and a side trip through the Black Sea to Odessa, all before the ultimate pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Twain recorded his observations and critiques of the various aspects of culture and society he encountered on the journey, some more serious than others, which gradually turned from witty and comedic to biting and bitter as he drew closer to the Holy Land. Once in the Holy Land proper, his tone shifted again, this time to a combination of light-hearted comedy and a reverence not unlike what he had previously mocked in his traveling companions.
A major theme of the book, insofar as a book can have a theme when assembled and revised from the newspaper columns Twain sent back to America as the journey progressed, is that of the conflict between history and the modern world; the narrator continually encounters petty profiteering and trivializations of history as he journeys, as well as a strange emphasis placed on particular past events, and is either outraged, puzzled, or bored by the encounter. One example can be found in the sequence during which the boat has stopped at Gibraltar. On shore, the narrator encounters seemingly dozens of people intent on regaling him, and everyone else, with a bland and pointless anecdote concerning how a particular hill nearby acquired its name, heedless of the fact that the anecdote is, indeed, bland, pointless, and entirely too repetitive. Another example may be found in the discussion of the story of Abelard and Heloise, where the skeptical American deconstructs the story and comes to the conclusion that far too much fuss has been made about the two lovers. Only when the ship reaches areas of the world that do not exploit for profit or bore passers-by with inexplicable interest in their history, such as the passage dealing with the ship's time at the Canary Islands, is this attitude not found in the text.
This reaction to those who profit from the past is found, in an equivocal and unsure balance with reverence, in the section of the book that deals with the ship's company's experiences in the Holy Land. The narrator reacts here, not only to the exploitation of the past and the unreasoning (to the American eye of the time) adherence to old ways, but also to the profanation of religious history. Many of his illusions are shattered, including his discovery that the nations described in the Old Testament could easily fit inside many American states and counties, and that the "kings" of those nations might very well have ruled over fewer people than could be found in some small towns.
This equivocal reaction to the religious history the narrator encounters may be magnified by the prejudices of the time, as the United States was still primarily a Protestant nation at that point. The Catholic Church, in particular, receives a considerable amount of attention from the narrator, specifically its institutionalized nature. This is particularly apparent in the section of the book dealing with Italy, where the poverty of the lay population and the relative affluence of the church causes the narrator to urge the inhabitants—in the text of the book, if not directly—to rob their priests.